Lynne Knight’s fourth collection, Again, was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2009. Her previous collections are Dissolving Borders (Quarterly Review of Literature), The Book of Common Betrayals (Bear Star Press), and Night in the Shape of a Mirror (David Robert Books), plus three award-winning chapbooks. A cycle of poems on Impressionist winter paintings, Snow Effects (Small Poetry Press), has been translated into French by Nicole Courtet. Knight’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2000, and her awards include a Theodore Roethke Award from Poetry Northwest, a Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, an NEA grant, and the 2009 RATTLE Poetry Prize. She lives in Berkeley, California.
TO THE YOUNG MAN WHO CRIED OUT "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" WHEN I BACKED INTO HIS CAR
I was thinking No. No, oh no. Not one more thing.
I was thinking my mother, who sat rigid
in the passenger seat crying, How terrible!
as if we had hit a child not your front bumper,
would drive me mad, and then there would be
two of us mad, mother and daughter, and things
would be easier, they said things would be easier
once she went to the other side, into complete total
madness. I was thinking how young you looked,
how impossibly young, and trying to remember
myself young, my body, my voice, almost another
person, and I wanted to weep for all I had let
come and go so casually, lovers, cities, flowers,
and then I was thinking You little shit for the way
you stood outside my window with your superior air
as if I were a stupid old woman with a stupid old woman
beside her, stood shouting What were you thinking?
as if I were incapable of thought, as I nearly was,
exhausted as I’d become tending my mother,
whom I had just taken to the third doctor in so many
days, and you shouting your rhetorical question
then asking to see my license, your li-cense, slowly,
as if I would not understand the word, and the lover
who made me feel as if I never knew anything
appeared then, stepped right into your body saying
What were you thinking? after I had told him, sobbed
to him, that I thought he was, I thought he was,
I thought we would—and then my mother began
to cry, as if she had stepped into my body, only years
before, or was it after, and suddenly I saw the whole
human drama writ plain, a phrase I felt I had never
understood until then, an October afternoon in Berkeley,
California, warm, warm, two vehicles stopped in
heavy traffic on campus, a woman deciding to make way
for a car trying to cross Gayley, act of random kindness
she thought might bring her luck then immediately—
right before impact—knew would be bad luck,
if it came, being so impure in its motive,
and then the unraveling of the beautiful afternoon
into anger and distress that would pass unnoticed
by most of the world, would soon be forgotten by those
witnessing the event, and eventually those experiencing it
while the sun went on lowering itself toward the bay
and gingko trees shook their gold leaves loose
until a coed on the way home from class, unaware
a car had backed into another car, unaware of traffic,
stopped to watch the shower of gingko, thought of Zeus
descending on the sleeping Danaë in a shower of gold,
and smiled over all her own lover would do
in the bright timeless stasis before traffic resumed.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem in 2009, long after the event, almost thirteen years after the event. It was triggered by my hearing Camille Dungy read a poem (not her own) about a pickup, I think an accident with a pickup, but I remember neither the poet nor the poem’s title. I didn’t feel anything particular when I heard Camille read the poem, beyond liking it; I mean, I didn’t feel any spark going off in me as sometimes happens when something triggers a poem. But the next morning, when I sat down at my desk as usual, this poem poured out.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I revised the ending a bit a month or so after writing it. I know Virginia Woolf said that writing is revision, and it’s something I always told my students, but I think different writers have different ways of revising. My “revision” usually takes the form of writing a bunch of bad poems before I get to the actual poem. There’s no formula; sometimes it takes five bad poems—they’re not poems, at all; I call them exercises—and sometimes it takes fifty or more. But I generally know if something is or isn’t a poem by the time I’ve finished writing it, and then my revision process usually consists of changing a word here or there, or cutting extraneous lines. With this poem, I changed some words toward the end.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration, but I don’t think we should sit around waiting for it. If it happens, it’s a gift. But it can be a gift we’re not ready to accept if we haven’t been practicing to use it. I always resort to sports metaphors when I think about this subject. I think Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, just to take two of my all-time favorites, are both inspired athletes. But think what would happen if they just waited, without practicing at all, to feel “up” for a game or a meet. We wouldn’t even know their names. And the ones whose names few of us know, the lesser athletes—even they can’t play the game or swim the race without practicing.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I write in form quite often, so I always know when I set out—after the first line—whether I’m heading into a formal structure or free verse. When I’m working in free verse, I listen to the rhythm and the music—or listen for them, I guess is more accurate.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I wrote it as fast as I can type. But I’d written countless poems about my mother and her dementia by then (in fact, a whole book of them, and then more), so I think it’s fair to say that I wrote this poem in “real” time in twenty minutes or so, but in fact it took me thirteen years to write it.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I wrote the poem sometime in the spring, March, I think. I sent it out in June, and it was published in December. It won the 2009 RATTLE prize.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I try to observe the rule I made up after having embarrassed myself by sending poems out that I’d written the day before or, gasp, the same day. I call it the Fast Track to Shame Rule.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I don’t feel bound by fact when I write a poem. I believe all poets and fiction writers sometimes have to lie in order to tell the truth. But as it happens, this particular poem happened pretty much the way it says things happened.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes. I know narrative poems have fallen into disfavor is some circles, but I happen to love narrative. I think it’s at the heart of all art—painting, music, fiction, poetry. I love story. I want to know where I am when I’m reading. That doesn’t mean it has to be someplace familiar. But I don’t want to feel as if I’m just adrift in words. I once heard a poet say, by way of introducing the poems about to be read (I’m avoiding telltale pronouns here), that we shouldn’t struggle for meaning; we should let the words wash over us like a warm bath. And I thought, I can take my own warm baths, thank you very much. I want to know what you think, what you see, what you dream. Not just the list of words that happened to drift by. I’m exaggerating to make a point.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don’t remember whose poems I’d read at the time of writing this poem, apart from the poem Camille Dungy read, the one I can’t really remember. But in general, I can name my influences: Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Frost when I was in high school; Rilke when I was in college. Stevens, but not all of Stevens. I concede his genius, but sometimes I find his poems so abstruse I might as well be reading a code I can’t crack. Sylvia Plath. Any woman my age was influenced by Plath, and after her, Sexton. But the two that really insinuated their voices and music into my mind and body were Eliot and Rilke.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My sister’s a great reader, as were our parents. In fact, my mother wrote poems when she was young, and when we were young, she sang poems to us, poems she’d memorized and created her own melodies for, or poems she just made up as she went along. So, to get back to the question: I consider my sister my ideal reader. First of all, she actually does read my work. If she doesn’t understand it (and this happens more than I like), then I regard the failure as my own. I don’t want to write poems that an intelligent, well-read woman who happens to be a lawyer not another poet or writer doesn’t get, at all. I don’t want the response to my work to be, Huh? What the hell is she talking about?
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I’ve been in the same poetry group for over twenty years. Our numbers have dwindled, but we meet once a month. It happened that I didn’t show them this poem, but I do regularly rely on them for criticism, which I trust, which is always useful.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Well, I think it’s more successful than many of them.
What is American about this poem?
I hope nothing. I really hope nothing. And it’s not because I don’t want to be identified as American. I just happen to think that good poetry transcends its country of origin. Even if a poem’s particulars identify it as being of a certain country, I think those borders dissolve when the poem does what it should do, or at least what I think it should do and what I work every day to make mine do—speak directly to the human heart.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I think Valéry was right: they’re all abandoned. Even a villanelle as seemingly perfect as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” was, I’m sure, abandoned. That’s what I love about writing: I always feel there’s more I could do, a higher level I could reach, even as I know I’ll never reach it. No matter how many villanelles I write, I’ll never get close to the perfection of “One Art.”
But it’s self-sabotaging to look at it that way. It’s silencing. The dreams I had of fame and fortune when I was eighteen are obviously not going to come true. They were foolish, anyway (fortune? poetry??!). What really matters is the writing. I feel really, really lucky to be able to get up every day, walk my dog, sweep the decks, and write.